Moving your network into the future takes time, initiative and planning. But most of all, it takes knowledge. Both the installer and the end-user need to understand what is available and what is feasible.

Trendspotting in the communications/technology market goes beyond the newest PDA and MP3 player to hit the market. Many in the industry have waited for the fiber-to-the-desk (FTTD) market to finally take off.

FTTD is a high-bandwidth solution that expands the traditional fiber backbone system by running fiber directly to desktops. FTTD is a horizontal wiring option that pushes the available bandwidth beyond 10G. It is an intriguing, underestimated and overlooked way to create a beneficial system that is expandable and performance-driven.

Fiber optics, in the cabling realm, has been around for well over 25 years now, so it cannot be classified as a passing fad. But it still has not made its presence felt the way it could, or should, have. Fiber first made its way into the mainstream as network backbone cabling; it has enjoyed dominance there for quite some time. It is time to move it right to the desk.

According to a recent study by FTM Consulting entitled “U.S. Building Fiber and Copper Cabling Systems: 2003,” the fiber optic cabling market is poised and ready to enjoy a period of growth. The study states that during the next five years, the fiber market will grow by 17 percent. It specifically predicts that the FTTD segment will dominate the market in general. Good news for those who have been waiting for this to happen. Such statistics are welcome for FTTD supporters since, according to Ciaran Forde of Avaya (www.avaya.com), the FTTD market now only consists of roughly 1 or 2 percent of the total market. That leaves a lot of room for improvement.

While fiber continues to be the solution of choice, many opt not to install it for various reasons, possibly based on the fact that FTTD is not completely understood.

The Benefits

Not only is fiber optic cabling reliable, it is expandable. Reliability is key since network downtime is unacceptable in today's computer-driven world. The expandability aspect is just as important because networks continue to evolve at such a rapid pace; it's difficult to predict future requirements. Fiber allows users to tap into the network on an as-needed basis without compromising functionality and network speeds. Depending on what applications are being run across the network, this is essential to business operations. Other well-known benefits include decreased attenuation and cross-talk issues that have traditionally plagued copper.

Another major benefit of fiber, and definitely applicable in a FTTD environment, is that the bend radius of fiber makes it an easily installed option. This makes FTTD an installer's dream and is something that should not be overlooked, since FTTD entails running fiber to numerous places, many of which may be hard to reach depending on the layout of the office/work area.

According to Avaya's Paul Kolesar, FTTD has several advantages over copper systems, such as longer length support that allows lower-cost wiring architectures (centralized cabling that can cut the cost of the wiring closets of each floor), immunity from electromagnetic interference, lighter weight and support for applications from 10 Mbps to 10 Gbps.

While it seems as if all the fiber-to-the-desk benefits point one directly in the direction of fiber, there still seems to be a disconnect.

The Costs

One word sums up FTTD's slow acceptance: money.

Fiber acquired a reputation as being expensive to maintain and install almost from the start. That reputation, plus the fact that copper is more ubiquitous, has been held against fiber ever since.

Some market perception now places FTTD as actually being less costly than copper, especially in the long run, but this is only true if you eliminate the electronics from the comparison, since that is what drives the cost through the roof.

The other side of the FTTD coin is the theory that higher-performing copper is now on par with fiber, but with the added benefits of lower-cost copper and no electronics. Many feel that the electronics component of fiber systems is what sends the price skyrocketing. Though the cost of fiber itself has come down to an affordable rate, the electronics have not quite followed suit.

Regarding FTTD's cost, Ciaran Forde of Avaya said, “For the pure physical layer, copper can be 20 percent of the cost of FTTD. This ignores the considerable delta between the LAN-active equipment and the other costs associated with FTTD, like support for telephony and devices without optical interferences. Factoring this into the design pushes the copper percentage even lower.”

The comparison is further fueled by the fact that regardless of whether one is talking about a fiber- or copper-based system, it is the EIA/TIA 568-A standard that dictates what the primary guidelines of the system are. This gives copper the edge since it does not allow for a completely fair comparison, mainly due in part to the price factor.

Why Fiber?

Therefore, it is reasonable that with the advances in copper, why even consider an all-fiber network? Simply put, fiber does have some very tangible advantages.

Perhaps the most talked-about benefit is the fact that fiber systems allow for essentially unlimited amounts of bandwidth, and we have all come to realize that bandwidth is much more important than people initially thought. Because of this enhanced bandwidth availability, users of FTTD can run multiple applications such as multimedia, voice, data and video, simultaneously and at speeds that keep productivity moving along a good clip.

Another important benefit of fiber is that the fiber network cannot be tapped into; it is secure. This helps explain why certain industries such as financial institutions, military bases and chemical manufacturers use fiber more so than others. Security, in all modes, methods and formats, has become something that encompasses our daily lives and businesses. This aspect of fiber will most likely be focused on more in the future.

Because there are pros and cons of FTTD, as with any system or technology, many have not been able to make the jump completely. Hybrid systems remain a popular choice; a lot of businesses have been using this option for a while now, some even without knowing it. When the decision to move into a full-blown FTTD system is made, a lot of the basics will have already been installed making the transition easy.

The most prevalent choice, as far as a hybrid solution goes, is to run a fiber backbone and then connect the desktops to that backbone with copper (usually one of the newer, high-speed copper cables). This is not a “complete” FTTD solution, but it is a start. In fact, even in an all-fiber system, many connect peripherals such as printers with copper cabling because very few businesses transmit heavy data traffic via such applications. However, that too seems to be changing. A true, 100-percent FTTD network is fairly rare, though that is not to say that they do not exist.

Many operations now move data at high transmission rates and with multiple users working simultaneously. This new way of doing business is one of the reasons that FTTD is becoming a popular topic once again.

The possibilities of FTTD are seemingly endless, more so now since high-speed desktop applications are becoming more mainstream and will continue to do so in the future. EC

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at JenLeahS@msn.com